Moves to bring Martinelli to trial almost
at a standstill, as is his comeback bid
by Eric Jackson
Last December the Supreme Court issued an order for Ricardo Martinelli’s arrest on illegal wiretapping charges. Between the high court and the foreign ministry, that warrant has bounced around in the Panamanian government and has never been passed on to INTERPOL, nor to authorities in the United States to whence Martinelli fled. The revelations of Edward Snowden and the 1904 US-Panamanian extradition treaty make an extradition on that charge politically and legally problematic but most of the other more than a dozen pending charges against the former president are for more garden variety graft and peculation. But proceedings on those charges are at a standstill in the Supreme Court and now that body’s presiding magistrate, Martinelli appointee José Ayú Prado, says that he wants to investigate the court investigators’ poor performance. That, of course, would cause further delays.
Panamanian law is in many ways designed to promote political corruption, and one of these ways is with primitive to nonexistent tolling statutes. Somebody with the money to hire armies of lawyers can interpose motion after motion and delay after delay in hopes of running out the calendar on the statute of limitations. Better yet, she or he could rely on cooperative judges or prosecutors to do a lot of that work. There is no law that says that while someone who has fled is out of the country, the clock stops as far as statutes of limitations go. For the most part the time taken up by delays caused by the accused is similarly not subtracted from the time limit to bring and finish a case.
Already, most of the cases of vote buying with public funds by Martinelli-backed candidates for the National Assembly in the 2014 elections are on the verge of being extinguished by the calendar. That the Martinelli-appointed Electoral Prosecutor Eduardo Peñaloza has from the day he took office taken dives on enforcing the law against his boss’s minion — and that seems to be fine with Attorney General Kenia Porcell. But a prosecutor’s bad faith refusal to uphold the law does not toll the statute of limitations. There have been convictions for perhaps the most egregious of the vote buyers, Heriberto “Yunito” Vega and his running mate in a campaign for a seat in the legislature from the province of Herrera. That his opponent was President Varela’s brother (to whom he lost) was apparently less of a factor than the crude, in-everyone’s-face fashion in which public funds were transferred from the national government through local governments, then through Vega’s maid and ultimately into gifts for the voters. This case, which got the two candidates three-year prison sentences, was the exception.
Ricardo Martinelli, who is harbored by the US government, can probably wait out any legal consequences for what he did in comfortable Miami self-exile. Panama is too obscure to most Americans for the matter to become a US campaign issue. But also stalled is Martinelli’s bid for a political comeback.
Sixteen of the Cambio Democratico party’s 25 deputies now refuse to take Martinelli’s orders. He designated former labor minister Alma Cortés as acting president and gave her orders to purge the 16 rebels. But she has been busy with other things, like defending herself from criminal charges that she somehow obtained about $3.5 million while in public office and which she can’t explain as coming from a legitimate source. After some time in preventive detention she was granted $300,000 bail, but could not immediately raise it. As in, the very wealthy Ricardo Martinelli has not been nearly so loyal to his dwindling band of followers as he expects members of his party to be to him. Cortés is out now but does not appear to be functioning in the role that she held before she went to jail. CD secretary general Rómulo Roux is now the party leadership’s public face and he says that the party’s legislative caucus is 25 members rather than nine.
Cambio Democratico announced in July that it would start to gather petition signatures to call for a new constitutional convention. Others are also talking about that. The CD petition drive is just talk, and no longer much of that lately. The hard reality is that by themselves the party couldn’t come close to mobilizing the people needed to collect the needed more than a half-million petition signatures.
And Martinelli’s next campaign? He says he wants to run for mayor of Panama City in 2019. It’s early yet, but there are no indications of any popular demand for that.
In his absence from Panama Martinelli’s public statements have been less about any big political plans and more about promoting the media empire that he acquired while president, largely financing those purchases via lucrative government advertising. That gravy train stopped running when Martinelli’s term in office ended. The shrunken page size of El Panama America and far thinner La Critica attest to the Martinelli brand’s woes. For the past year or so the former president has been warning that Varela wants to shut down the EPASA newspapers, NexTV, KW Continente radio and so on, but it seems that the market is what’s moving in that direction. The Martinelli family’s billboard business also seems to be a major bust if one considers who owns most of those signs that now just say that they are for rent.
Does the bipolar politician who ran for president on the platform of “Los Locos Somos Más” have the reputation of a manic raver? We may now be seeing the other end of the pole, a political and business career sputtering out in a depressive haze.
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